In the 10th century, Privas was owned by the counts of Toulouse who subsequently sold it to the counts of Poitiers. The town received its own charter in the 13th century. In 1566, the baronetcy of Privas was split between the two daughters of Diane de Poitiers, the legendary mistress of Henri II. There still exists in Privas a 15th century tower called the Diane de Poitiers tower. In the 16th century, the protestant movement spread from Geneva to France and the new religious ideas took hold in the Ardèche. Privas became the centre of the protestant movement in the east of the country and a symbol of resistance to the Catholic monarchy. The town became known as ‘le Rempart de la Réforme’.
In spite of severe and merciless repression by the authorities, encouraged by both the Spanish and the Pope, the protestant movement prospered and for over 70 years, no catholic mass was said in Privas – in 1570 the inhabitants even destroyed the catholic church.
In 1629, following a protestant uprising, the town was besieged by the royal army and was eventually taken and razed to the ground. The bridge over the river was rebuilt by Louis XIII in case he needed to send more troops to Privas to quell another uprising. Privas has a motto – celle que la violence a détruite, sa propre énergie l’a ressuscitée – which is highly appropriate.
It was the silk industry which restored the fortunes of Privas and the Ardèche. Silkworms feed on mulberry leaves and the mulberry bush grows well in rocky soil. Chomerac, near Privas, was the site of the first silk factory and it was quickly followed by others.
In the 19th century, Privas became known as the capital of the marron glacé. Chestnut trees grow everywhere in the Ardèche and peasants living on isolated farms used the chestnut as their staple food – in fact, the tree was known as ‘l’arbre à pain’. In 1882, Clément Faugier invented the marron glacé and from a tiny factory in Privas, the brand is now internationally renowned. Half of all the chestnuts produced in France come from the Ardèche.